Houston city councilmember concerned ShotSpotter may disproportionately impact communities of color

Rosie Nguyen Image
Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Councilmember worried HPD program will target communities of color
Houston police said the ShotSpotter system has helped officers respond quickly to gunfire. But a Houston councilmember said the program could end up unfairly targeting communities of color.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Could a fairly new gunshot detection technology disproportionately impact Houston's communities of color? That's what one city councilmember is worried about after the rest of her 16 colleagues voted to approve its expansion last Wednesday.

Councilmember Letitia Plummer was the only person to vote against a five-year, $3.5 million contract with ShotSpotter, which claims its devices can identify the sound of a gunshot and notify law enforcement of the time and approximate location. It originally came to the city of Houston at the end of 2020. The vote for expansion was originally delayed back in December by Councilmember Mike Knox, who wanted more time to acquire additional data on the technology.

SEE ALSO: Houston City Council votes to expand HPD's gunfire detection program


Councilmember Greg Travis said initially, he was skeptical of the program. But after hearing from local law enforcement, he believes there are more pros than cons to ShotSpotter.

"Where a shot goes off, there's usually cameras nearby, so you can know the time, date, and location. And more readily identify the person that was actually behind the shooting," he said.

Officials said the price tag is to help the program sustain its operation and for the Houston Police Department to have it available to use. Back in May, the Harris County Sheriff's Office said the technology helped them locate a marijuana grow house in north Harris County.

They also arrested three men the weekend prior, seconds after a man was shot in the Sunnyside area. HPD Commander Milton Martin previously told ABC13's Ted Oberg that the system beats 911 callers in speed and accuracy.

Through data provided to the council, ShotSpotter sent more than 2,300 alerts involving more than 8,600 gunshots to HPD - most of which it claims residents did not call 911. The company said it helped authorities make 54 arrests, assist 16 gunshot victims, find more than 1,700 cartridges, and recover 40 guns.

However, Plummer said HPD would not provide comparative data so that they could look at numbers before and after ShotSpotter was installed in the city.


Plummer, who represents the entire city as an at-large official, stated various reasons as to why she does not support the purchase of ShotSpotter. She said the technology cannot reliably distinguish between gunshots and other loud noises above 130 decibels, such as fireworks and jackhammers. She cited an Associated Press investigation that found the technology misses live gunfire right under its microphones and can also misclassify the sounds of backfiring cars or fireworks as gunshots.

"I want to, first, acknowledge that crime is an issue in the city of Houston. Clearly, we need to find an opportunity to do better to fight crime. But in my five years of evidence-based research that was done on ShotSpotter, we could not find that it actually limited crime or gun violence in general," she said.

Travis said he voted in favor of the program partly because he wanted to listen to his constituents who want the program in their neighborhood and officers with HPD who have praised the technology.

"In regards to the AP study, it's a study. Anybody can do a study to tell them what they want to see or hear. When you talk to the police themselves and how they use it, they will tell you it's been extremely helpful," he said.

Plummer said HPD does not disclose exactly where the ShotSpotter technology is deployed. But she is told that they are installed in areas with a higher level of gun-related incidents, which are also neighborhoods with predominantly Black and Latino populations. She believes misidentified sounds can send officers into volatile and potentially dangerous situations where they may have to make split-second decisions on information that may not be accurate.

"My largest concern is that police officers don't have enough information to do their jobs well when they go to a scene. I'm concerned that innocent people are going to be charged for crimes that they were not a part of, but they may have been in the vicinity," she said.

She is also concerned about the already-scarce police resources being deployed or diverted to areas where ShotSpotter alerts go off, just to turn up empty-handed. A study by the MacArthur Justice Center found that in Chicago, the vast majority of alerts generated by the system turned up no evidence of gunfire or gun-related crimes.

Travis said the area he represents, District G, actually doesn't have ShotSpotter devices installed, and he's using some council district service funds to help an HOA deploy it in their community. He mentioned a conversation he had with Mayor Sylvester Turner while advocating for more police officers in his district.

"The mayor told me that, 'The police go where the crime is.' I said, 'Understood. But understand that crime goes where the police are not.' So the fact is, if police are going somewhere, it's because there's crime there. I don't think it disproportionately affects minorities and people of color. I think it assists them," he said.


Once the contract with ShotSpotter is up for renewal in five years, the Houston City Council will reevaluate the technology. If it ends up not being cost-effective, the council will have the option to cancel the program then. Travis said the community needs to remember this is just one piece of the overall puzzle in fighting crime in the city.

"This is a force multiplier or not the end-all of everything. There's no technology that's that. It's simply a tool, one tool of many," he said. "I think the City of Houston needs to give it a chance."

With gun violence being at the top of everyone's minds, Turner previously said in a council meeting last month that ShotSpotter is "not in lieu of bringing in more police officers or investing in our communities. We want to do that too."

Plummer said she will continue to advocate for police reform and racial equity to help improve safety and security in the city.

"I believe my councilmembers, like myself, we want to fix this. We want the city to be better. We want crime to go away. And in a way, we're all kind of grasping for solutions," said Plummer. "In my mind, we're making decisions because we're being defensive, we need to be on the offensive."


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